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The Role of Sex in the Life of Man

By Harold Kelman

[In this lecture, Harold Kelman talks about how sexual factors can be understood more realistically, without setting up artificial distinctions between “masculine” and “feminine” psychology. Topics include:

« Introduction describes Freud and his patients. Considered that the causes of mental aberrations resulted from psycho-sexual issues. Must curb and sublimate destructive instincts. Kelman notes that Freud's views are a product of the time and place he lived in. Freud conceived of women as inferior to men. Penis envy theory derived from this theory.

Kelman contrasts modern theories with Freud. Belief that there is neither the "masculine or feminine psychology, rather there is the individual."

Society's views that masturbation is injurious are medically unfounded. The more harmful aspect are the societal views on masturbation.

Increasing freedom of women in the past few years have threatened men.

Audio courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection » (quotations from - AKS]

The Role of Sex in the Life of Man

NYC Municipal Archives audio recording (hosted on

Monday, December 12, 1949

The cultural determinants for our past and present attitudes toward sex become clearer when considered in the light of the changing historical background of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The forces operating just before the turn of the century — the period in which Freud began his work — left definite impressions on his thinking.

The great era of colonial empire-building had just come to a close. It was the era of laissez-faire, exploitation, and national aggrandizement. Politically, it was the age of the survival of the fittest. The Vienna in which Freud lived and worked was the Vienna of Mayerling — a city steeped in a comic-opera atmosphere, in which love was excessively romanticized and saturated with the tragic. True love had to entail sacrifice, and devotion automatically led to anguish and despair, while continued mutual happiness was considered anachronistic, trite, boring, and mundane. In accord with the pattern of the times, Viennese thinking also stressed the maintenance of the status quo. It was rigid, authoritarian, restrictive, and coercive. Defensively fearful of the imminent loss of empire which it had already begun to sense, it was a thinking characterized by Darwin’s concept of the “survival of the fittest.” It avoided mention of those sections of the naturalist writings which commented on the fact of cooperation for mutual benefit — present in plant and animal life.

Dissatisfied with the then-current method of treating neuroses by the rescuer, Freud went to Paris and worked with Charcot, who was startling the psychiatric world by the use of hypnosis. After a trial, Freud became convinced that hypnosis — as a means of therapy — was definitely limited. He returned to Vienna, where he subsequently developed the technique of free association, which was to become the beginning of the psychoanalytic method. Freud’s patients were naturally the product of their rigid cultural background. Because the problems they presented were predominantly sexual, he came to believe that sexual disturbances were the basic causes of all mental conflicts. Subsequently, he broadened the base of his thinking. He came to consider that the causes for mental aberrations could be found in disturbances of affectionate relationships — that is, psycho-sexuality. Still later, he became aware of the “ego,” and developed his theory of the self-preservative instincts. Latterly, he concerned himself more with the general problem of anxiety. His main emphasis, however, continued to remain on sex and family relationships, from which he evolved his concept of the “Oedipus conflict” — the Oedipus complex. This was a static, descriptive, personalized psychology which failed to consider sufficiently the broader aspects of society and its effects on the individual.

Freud believed that man was basically destructive, and that pleasure was merely the outcome of a relief from pain. The problem that confronted society, as he saw it, was to curb and sublimate those destructive instincts as best it could. As a result, Freud’s writings are pessimistic, coercive, and generally restrictive. He conceives of man as a helpless, fore-doomed, and wretched being, driven by powerful instincts which he cannot control. The most that man can hope for, according to Freud, is a socially acceptable adjustment to a situation which is necessarily bad, without it crippling him too much in the process. A further proof of the influence of the culture in which Freud lived was evidenced by his attitude towards women. Reflecting the Victorian thesis that men were generally superior to women, his psychology was predominantly male. He regarded women as something less than men — individuals who were incomplete men, inherently inferior to men, and hence utterly incapable of scaling the physical and spiritual heights of the male domain. Out of this attitude came his concept of “penis envy,” which held that no woman was satisfied with her femininity, and that all of them — consciously or unconsciously — aspired to be men.

On this basis, naturally, all woman was doomed to inevitable and constant frustration — wretched victims of a biological trap. It was not until the early twenties that Horney and other psychoanalysts began a further exploration about what was then known as “feminine psychology.” As a direct result of World War I, women had, by then, thrown off many of the cultural shackles which had been foisted upon them by their Victorian heritage. They were beginning to live on a somewhat more equal plane with men, although even now their emancipation is still far from complete. Sufficient psychoanalytic, clinical data has been recorded to convince us that there is neither a “masculine” nor a “feminine” psychology, but that the individual — regardless of the difference in sex — is our primary interest and concern. In contrast to Freud’s generally pessimistic view — that mankind is the fore-doomed victim of destructive drives which he cannot control — our present, basic ideas are positive, optimistic, and essentially hopeful. Modern psychoanalysis operates on the conviction that the human being can reason, act, and feel; that he knows what he wants, and can do something about realizing his goals. We believe, further, that the individual has the capacity to grow, develop, and be creative; that he wants to, and can enjoy work and love relationships; that he is basically constructive, and that his destructive drives are only secondary results of his fears, activated by the restriction and frustration of his natural, spontaneous creativeness.

Against this background, we can now proceed to investigate some aspects of the role of sex in human affairs. It will be helpful in this regard to first discuss the matter of sex activity in children. Many of us attempt to blind ourselves to “normal” and “abnormal” manifestations of sexual curiosity in childhood. It is something of an anomaly in our society that the natural curiosity of children is applauded in all directions, except with regard to biological facts. A child is aware of its body before it has any real appreciation of self. It is normal and natural for it, therefore, to explore all the bodily orifices, and to stimulate any part of its body for pleasure. Yet, the attitude of the majority of parents is such that the child’s natural curiosity becomes inhibited and frustrated. This, consequently, leads to the development of abnormal fears, with resultant distortions of interest and activities in bowel, bladder, and genital functions.

Now, a word about masturbation. In some form, it occurs at some time in the normal development of all individuals. Our attitudes of disapproval toward such activity are so drastic, however, that many adults have repressed the memory of such experience. This is particularly true with women, who tend to feel more guilty about masturbating than men because of the sexual attitudes still operative in our culture. Normally, with the advent of adolescence, and a growing interest in the opposite sex, the emphasis on masturbation lags, and is supplanted by the natural desire for heterosexual relations. Unfortunately, the mistaken notion still exists that masturbation is a particularly harmful practice. Actually, there is no medical basis for this belief. Masturbatory activity is no more injurious than any other activity engaged in to excess. What has significance for us, primarily, are the attitudes regarding this activity, rather than the activity itself — adolescence calls for drastic emotional adjustments.

Female children today are somewhat better prepared for the advent of menstruation; consequently, they do not view it with the dread and horror they formerly did. An interesting expression of our cultural attitude is manifested by the frequency with which women refer to it as “the curse” — a deep-rooted remnant of the belief in “original sin” and the physical inferiority of women. Today, an increasingly larger number of women limit their activities less during the menses than they ever did before. A widespread prejudice against sexual activity during menstruation still exists, with the concomitant belief that it is unhygienic — though this is definitely untrue. Participation in sexuality during menses is a concern of the persons involved, and is a matter of their own individual preferences. The duration and frequency of sexual activity are not only matters of individual preference — they are also strongly affected by cultural attitudes. In some cultures, for example, sexual activity is encouraged in the young, whereas in our own, as we have seen, even self-exploratory activity in children is frowned upon. As to the duration of sexual life, we accept, without basis, that sexual activity necessarily wanes with advancing years. Factually, however, many men and women in the fifties and even in the sixties enjoy frequent sexual intercourse, with orgasm and considerable satisfaction.

In all cultures, sexual activity may become perverse in its object or in its aim. Homosexuality may be said to exist, therefore, when a person of the same sex is taken as a love partner, to function in an active or passive role or both. Contrary to widespread belief, there are very few individuals in whom we can definitely say that there is a biological basis for homosexuality1. Resorting to endocrine therapy as a first remedy, before a thorough psychological analysis robs the individual in question of a real opportunity to obtain mental help, and also thwarts investigation of this problem. Clinical experience has further proven that the great majority of homosexuals can be treated by psychological methods.

Perversion has been cynically defined as nothing more than a difference in the point of view. By sexual perversion, we generally mean that the activity is distorted. All the orifices of the body are used for entrance and contact. In addition, the sexual activity may be limited to one aspect of the whole sequence of acts leading to the consummation of heterosexual or homosexual activity. Most of these activities can be considered as part of normal sexual activity, as long as they are not indulged in as an end in themselves, or for the satisfaction of humiliating, or other neurotic tendencies on the part of either or both parents. We would then have what we consider pathological deviations in the sex act. The frequency of sexual activity — whether marital, pre-marital, or extra-marital, is a question of the desires of the two persons concerned in a mutually cooperative activity for the purpose of pleasure. The satisfactory achievement of this mutual cooperation is difficult to obtain in our culture, because a feeling that the enjoyment of sex is sinful is still so deeply ingrained in many allegedly emancipated members of our society.

In society, likewise, the acceptance of a double standard, for men and not women, is culturally determined. A man is supposed to “sow his wild oats,” and free marital relationships. This attitude, however, is rapidly changing with the increase of career women. Sexual freedom for women has been further aided by the dissemination of sex hygiene information in the younger age groups, and through the greater availability of contraceptive aids, which has lowered the frequency of venereal diseases and illegal operations. The need for extra-marital relationships is not an expression of the lack of sexual satisfaction with a partner, but rather, an evidence of a deeper disturbance in the whole interpersonal relationship manifesting itself in a disturbance of the sex-act. Thus, a husband or wife may rationalize their right to indulge in extra-marital affairs because their marital partner is sexually unresonposive. Upon closer examination, it often develops that the whole fabric of their relationship is emotionally warped and devoid of pleasure.

Any discussion of extra-marital relationships usually turns, sooner or later, to the topic of frigidity in women. Here we have a classic example of putting the cart before the horse. Our cultural attitudes specifically force frigidity in women, and then insist that women are more difficult to arouse sexually than men. This is a biological fallacy. Well-adjusted women are just as eager for sexual activity as are well-adjusted men. They are aroused just as easily and obtain equally as much pleasure from the sexual act. There are, of course, degrees of pleasure in sex, as well as in all other human activities. Normally, pleasure is obtained from all aspects of sexual activity and, depending upon mutual consent, may be of limited extent, or continue on to complete orgasm.

The romanticized version of sex is a state in which the individual is carried away, and there is a loss of self. This is something literally “out of this world” — the nth degree of ecstatic bliss. Actually, of course, it is really nothing of the kind. What we have here is the use of sex as a neurotic escape mechanism. Much as may be observed in inidividuals who use hypnotics, alcohol, and drugs for the same purpose. Factually, a natural orgasm is a heightened state of sexual pleasure with conscious awareness, as a cumulation of heterosexual activity by two mutually cooperative individuals. The romanticized notion of loss of self therefore actually prevents the individuals from full, conscious enjoyment of a highly pleasurable act. Unfortunately, in our culture, sex and love are synonymous terms. Sex does not equal love, nor does love equal sex. Love can be defined as a state of pleasurable mutuality which, when present between two persons of the opposite sex, may have as one of its aspects, pleasurable sexual activity.

From what has been noted previously, it is not surprising that there are cultural determinants for the use of the words “man” and “woman.” We use the word “man” in an anatomic sense, as a qualifying adjective, and as an all-inclusive symbol to denote the human race. The word “woman,” on the other hand, while it has anatomic, and qualitative meanings, is never used in our culture to denote the human race. It might be argued that “man” is merely a generic term — a habit of speech — which is convenient to continue to use, and which has long since lost its essentially masculine connotation. But how, then, explain that the qualities “masculine” and “feminine” also have fallacious connotations in our culture? “Womanly,” for example, or “feminine,” are synonymous with softness and warmth, while “manly” and “masculine” denote strength and virility. These categorical attributes are merely projections, however, of our cultural attitudes. They are not biological characteristics of men or women. They are, rather, accepted and culturally predetermined characteristics of what we believe to be the difference between the sexes. Actually, the qualities of warmth and strength are innate in all human beings.

In an attempt to sustain the contention that women are basically different from men, or vice-versa. The point is frequently made that, after all, only women can bear children. But, for that matter, only men can impregnate women. Then again, the position is often taken that women can have many children from one man, or many men, with the implication that this makes them radically different from men. But those who argue that point frequently fail to mention the fact that one man can be the father to many children — by one woman, or many women.

This is merely my way of illustrating that the use of an anatomical argument to prove a psychological point is both an evidence of unclear thinking and an attempt to avoid the real issue. What we are interested in is not the sexual, anatomical differences per se, but the psychological attitudes toward those sexual, anatomical differences — as determined by our particular cultural pattern. Men who are emotionally insecure often attempt to obtain a feeling of security by assuming a dominating position toward women. In the last few years, social changes have been so rapid that these men feel threatened by the increasing emancipation and freedom which women have obtained. Such men feel that the way things are going, the time is not far off when women will become uncontrollable and completely out of hand. Yet, at the same time, these men — who assume the role of the benevolent, stronger male, caring for the helpless and weaker-minded female — complain bitterly, but secretly enjoy the fact that women are “different,” and not endowed with a sense of justice, camaraderie, stability, and clear-headedness — which they feel are peculiar to men. The point that this type of man overlooks is that a woman functioning as a person in a real, cooperative interpersonal relationship would not be such a problem to him, and would not have to exact, or have thrust upon her, the alleged special privileges, prerogatives, and deferences shown to her in our culture. Although it may appear that men are mainly responsible for this situation, actually, women, unconsciously — and often consciously — nurture and invite just those atittudes. They feel that they are gaining by these special privileges — but at the same time, contradictorily, want to be treated just like men. Clearly, they would be better off without these special prerogatives, or being treated “just like men,” and if they devoted their energies to becoming their own selves.

Our social attitudes toward sex have also created an extensive, vulgar male vocabulary in which sexual activity is referred to violent and humiliating terms. This is a direct reflection of our deeply-ingrained conception of sex as a violent and humiliating assault on a woman by a man in which she is harmed, and is the unwilling partner. As a result, many men and women have to re-create this neurotic setting before they can obtain “sexual satisfaction.” Usually, however, women do not express themselves sexually in vulgar terms. In accordance with the rules of the game — of the romantic game — all references to the sexual act must be indirect. A man may be referred to as having a “nice physique” and being “clean-limbed.” But any direct reference to the male genital region is strictly taboo. Sex can be used for the same neurotic purpose by both men and women. And what holds true for sex holds for any thought, feeling, or act which is shared by two individuals. What concerns us, primarily, is the meaning — that thought, feeling, or act — may have for the individual in relationship to himself, and to those with whom he lives. In modern psychoanalysis, it is the individual and his interpersonal relationships which form the basis of our thinking — not his sexual activity or its numerous derivatives and involvements.

Instead of the sexual act being indulged in for pleasure, it is more often used for the purposes of humiliation, hostility, and disparagement, as well as of power and prestige. Men frequently use it to gain approval; to inflate their sense of importance, and to bolster their self-doubted potency. Many women use sex as a lure, to ensnare their men, as well as to obtain gifts and admiration as an object of sexual desire. Inasmuch as all of these are perverted of the original function of the sexual act, they inevitably leave the participants with a feeling of dissatisfaction.

One of the most common symptoms of sexual maladjustment in male patients is premature ejaculation. Modern psychoanalytic research has revealed that a basic cause of the difficulty these organically sound men have often lies in their hostile attitude towards women. They do not want to give women any sexual satisfaction, and ejaculate prematurely out of unconscious spite. It is a form of protection — a means of preventing them from coming close to a woman for fear that she might sense their hostility and retaliate in kind. In a broader sense, premature ejaculation may also be a symptom of a generaly anti-social attitude. Some men are afraid of any close human contact, because it might prove a threat to their false notions of independence and misogynistic self-sufficiency. Frigidity in women may also have a similar connotation, or it may be that they must deny having any pleasure. Admission of such pleasure might mean, to them, the existence of an obligation which they cannot or do not want to repay.

The excessive emphasis on sex in our culture is manifested in our dream-language, and has been subjected to a mistaken and one-sided interpretation from the Freudian viewpoint. Many dreams which seem to be purely sexual in nature are actually only superficially concerned with sex. Modern psychoanalysis has revealed many significant social attitudes in the character of the dreamer which have little to do with sex per se. For example, a young man dreams that he lies on a couch. He has a long penis which reaches from himself to a woman who stands some distance off. At first glance, this dream seems to be concerned with the problem of potency. The patient’s history reveals that it has quite a different meaning. Factually, he has no sexual problem. All his life, this man insisted on lying back while women were at his beck and call, assuming all responsibility, and were the active partners in the relationship. In other words, women were relegated to a safe distance, near enough to be enjoyed, in carefree comfort, but sufficiently far away to make it impossible for them to affect him personally or to encroach on his privacy. His dream, then, reveals his abhorrence of closeness in a relationship, and his distaste for actively assuming any kind of direct responsibility, as well as a desire to dominate, via remote control.

Again, a woman dreamed she is nude in bed with a naked man. On the other side of her, an apparent confession of extreme sexual lust. But, in real life, this woman always managed to have two men on her string, as a protection, because she wanted neither, and feared both. She played one against the other for what she could get out of them, and so prevented either from coming too close to her and making demands. The disturbance in her sexual relationship, as expressed in her dream, was merely a manifestation of her disturbed interpersonal relationships in general. Actually, this woman was not only frigid, but felt nauseated at the idea of a man kissing her. She never had any sexual experience, or anything remotely approximating it.

A third dream is fairly common, in one of its many variations. It is of a man or a woman who dreams that he or she is having sexual intercourse or defecating in some extremely public place. This dream usually reveals an attitude of unconscious arrogance, and has little in it of sexual significance. It manifests the dreamer’s defiance toward what people think of him, to such an extent that he does not care who sees his sexual activity, defecation, or urination. The sexual content of the dream is, hence, far less important than the general attitude of contemptuous indifference to society and its conventions. It is fairly common for a woman psychoanalytic patient to “fall in love” with her analyst. She may overtly or covertly suggest a relationship, and she may even believe that her desires are quite sincere and legitimate. Yet, on examination, we commonly find that the proposed liaison has ulterior motives. The patient either feels that she could dominate the situation, if she could make the analyst respond to her advances, or else it might be a means of breaking off the analytic relationship, or a desire to compromise the analyst professionally. If this could be accomplished, everything unpleasant or unacceptable which the analyst had said could, she feels, be invalidated on the grounds of a lack of professional dignity or ability. Again, such a patient might be using sex to get so close to the analyst that he would not be able to see her clearly. So-called “love,” manifested for an analyst of the same sex, may also be used for similar purposes, and need not be an indication of homosexuality when it appears in an analyst’s relationship with a male patient.

In the foregoing descriptions of the various sexual activities and cultural attitudes toward sex, an attempt has been made to present a few of the more basic aspects of the modern psychoanalytic viewpoint towards this problem. Freud built his concept of human personality on the narrow basis of sex, and attempted to derive most manifestations of character and behavior from this single source.

The modern psychoanalytical approach, on the other hand, emphasizes the importance of the individual and his relationship to himself and to those with whom he lives and works. It believes that individuals — singly as well as in groups — know what is best for their welfare, have the capacity within themselves to attain a fuller realization of their potentialities as human beings, and to create for themselves a society in which cooperative participation for mutual benefit can become a reality. Such a society will respect them because they will have courage and integrity, and above all, because they will believe in the intrinsic value of human life and human dignity.

1This statement is consistent with Dr. Kelman’s views, as expressed for example in his Helping People: Karen Horney’s Psychoanalytic Approach (1971) in the chapters dealing with homosexuality, but it would be much more controversial today. This is partly because there is greater awareness of the ubiquity of homosexuality among human beings and other animals, and hence we can no longer glibly say that there are “very few” individuals” who identify as homosexual. It has also been seen that, with greater social tolerance and acceptance of homosexuals in society, it has become more feasible for same-sex couples to cultivate healthy, mutually nurturing relationships and to raise children in such home environments. While social disapproval remains common and often impairs the health of such relations and child-rearing activities, it has also become evident in social-scientific research that the incidence of healthy and neurotic patterns in children does not issue from the sexual orientation of the parents. The full spectrum of healthy and neurotic patterns can be seen in all sex partners, irrespective of their particular sexual orientations. Any attempt to seek the source of problems in one type would be, following Horney, like trying to understand automobile accidents based on the study of a flat tire on one wheel, without considering the car as a whole, traffic patterns, urban planning and development, etc.  — AKS